A raw foods diet could help control your weight and enhance your health. Is it right for you?
A raw foods diet is quite a commitment, but with the increased nutrition, weight-loss possibilities and detoxification possible, you might want to consider this lifestyle change. And if you’re not quite ready for such a dramatic change, just adding some delicious raw recipes to your diet can enhance your health and fight premature aging.
A raw foods diet is exactly that: raw foods. No cooking, no grilling, no steaming, no application of heat of any kind. Why? Because eating food that is closest to its natural state engenders a tremendous exchange of energy between food and body. The result, over time, is a feeling of buoyant, radiant health.
A raw foods diet is predominantly raw vegan. Raw foods are still “living,” in a manner of speaking. They may be dehydrated, frozen or fermented, but at no time have they been heated to a temperature of more than 110 degrees. Their enzymes and nutrients are intact. If you set these foods in their whole form into soil and watered them, many would sprout.
The predominance of cooked food harkens back to our nomadic days, when meat was the most important element of our diet. Cooking meat destroyed bacteria and smoking or curing meat allowed it to be kept for long periods of time. We needed fire for warmth and protection; we grew accustomed to warm foods and hot drinks. These habits have been carried forward through generations to today.
The reason cooked food smells so appealing is that its flavors and nutrients are being evaporated by the heat and are passing from the food into the air. But once the food is cooked, it often requires lots of salt, sweetener, spices and fat to make it taste better.
Steamed vegetables (ostensibly among the healthiest of cooked foods) are usually heated to about 212 degrees. Unfortunately, many vitamins lose potency at a mere 130 degrees. Vitamins D, E and K are destroyed in cooking. High temperatures decrease levels of vitamin C and most of the B-complex vitamins in food. The loss of vitamin B1 from cooking can be from 25 to 45 percent, and B2 loss can be from 40 to 48 percent.
In addition, cooking produces free radicals in foods (and especially in oils). Free radicals are unpaired, charged molecules that cause cellular destruction and are thought to be the primary environmental cause of aging. The higher the cooking temperature, the more free radicals are created.
Cooking also damages fats, changing them into trans-fatty acids that impede cellular respiration and that can be a factor in heart disease and cancer. When heated, the fats in oils adversely affect the skin, leading to clogged pores, acne and eczema.
Because they don’t offer the potent enzymes of raw foods, cooked foods require the body to devote more energy toward digestion and elimination. The eliminative system (the pores, lungs, kidneys and bowels) becomes congested and overworked, possibly leading to states of disease. Because cooking depletes some nutrients in foods, it is more difficult to feel satisfied by eating them; therefore, overeating and obesity become more common.
Minerals, vitamins and hormones cannot work except in the presence of enzymes; enzymes help synthesize, join and duplicate entire chains of amino acids. Breathing, sleeping, digestion, nutrient absorption, immunity, reproduction and sensory perception all are dependent on enzymes. Enzyme therapy has been used to treat arthritis, autism, autoimmune disorders, fat intolerance, inflammation, multiple sclerosis, pain, varicose veins and viral infections. Enzymes are cancer’s enemy, as well: They break away the protective fibrin around cancer cells, make the cells less sticky (thereby preventing metastasis, which is the spread of cancer cells to other parts of the body), and alert the immune system to their presence.
Enzymes cannot be synthetically reproduced. (Most of the pharmaceutical enzymes available are derived from pig pancreas.) Enzymes can be divided into two basic categories: exogenous (introduced from outside the body) and endogenous (produced in the body).
For years, nutritionists were taught that exogenous enzymes in food had no more nutritional or digestive value than their amino acid content because stomach acid would break down the enzymes before they could be absorbed. However, a recent study conducted by W.A. Hemmings of the University College of North Wales indicates that a significant amount of dietary protein (that is, exogenous enzymes) is actually absorbed into the body intact (that is, not broken down into its amino acid components). When food is consumed, acid secretion is very low for the first 30 minutes or so. As food sits in the upper section of the stomach, the exogenous enzymes aid their own digestion, which enables the body to do less work later. After 30 to 45 minutes, the bottom portion of the stomach opens, and the body secretes its own endogenous enzymes and acids. Even at that point, the exogenous enzymes are not inactivated until the acid level becomes prohibitive, which can take up to one hour. A decrease in the quantity and quality of our endogenous enzymes is a natural result of aging. The typical Western lifestyle and diet also deplete the body of enzymes, thus rushing us headlong toward premature aging.
Enzymes are fragile: light, heat and pressure can deactivate them. In fact, many are completely destroyed at temperatures exceeding 118 degrees, which means the exogenous enzymes in foods are destroyed by cooking. Because cooked food lacks active enzymes of its own, the body must produce more endogenous enzymes in order to digest it.
When raw food is consumed, on the other hand, its enzymes assist in the preliminary digestive process. Raw foods not only introduce exogenous enzymes to the body but also provide the nutrients that allow, or trigger, endogenous enzymes to function. Therefore, a large portion of a raw meal is partially digested before it reaches the lower stomach, and fewer endogenous enzymes and acids are needed for its further digestion and absorption. Conserving enzymes contributes to staying youthful — and the raw foods diet is one means of enzyme conservation.
The good news for many of us is that raw foods enable us to eat delicious food and still achieve and maintain our optimal weight. By comparison, the typical Western diet and lifestyle seem to encourage overeating and tend to lead to obesity; in the United States, this has become a national health problem. Overeating has many psychological causes, including stress, emotional insecurity and depression, but it also can have a physical component: the body’s incessant craving for nutritional satisfaction that it never receives from processed foods. Cooking destroys so many nutrients that you have to eat more in order to get the nutrients you need.
If your food is raw, you can eat eight to 10 times less than you would if you were eating cooked food, and still satisfy your body’s needs. But that doesn’t mean you have to go hungry on a raw foods diet — on the contrary. Raw foods contain so much water, fiber and general bulk that they fill you up faster than cooked foods do. They also energize you, making it easier to get involved in activities that get you up off the couch and strengthen your muscles and your mind.
In general, a raw foods diet tends to bring body weight to equilibrium, or to its optimal state. When my husband and I started eating raw, he gained weight and I lost weight — while we were both eating basically the same food and the same portion sizes! You can expect to get healthier and more toned with raw foods. It’s important to remember, of course, that optimal weight means different things for different people: we each have a unique, natural shape and size.
When you begin a raw foods diet, you may experience a detoxification reaction. This reaction is itself an indicator of the health-endowing powers of raw foods. You’ll see for yourself that the accumulated toxins in your body are eliminated and physiological imbalances are corrected. You might look worse before you look better; you might feel worse before you feel better.
Signs of detox can include fatigue, cold or flulike symptoms, muscle soreness, low libido, sore throat, sweating, fever, skin breakouts, diarrhea and irritability. Rest and sleep facilitate the detox process, which can last for about three months (see “Taking Steps Toward Eating Raw” on Page 43). Mild exercise, such as walking or low-impact aerobics, also is helpful, but you should avoid anything strenuous. Drink plenty of water. Focus on supporting the channels of elimination.
When you embrace a lighter diet, old, repressed emotions (perhaps buried in mounds of cheesecake) can rise to the surface. Cry. Journal. Scream. Pound on pillows. Take a warm bath. Assist the cleansing process rather than suppressing it.
A few small studies on raw foods have been conducted with a range of test subjects, and all the results have been positive. A few are detailed below.
Beginning in 1932, physician Francis M. Pottenger of Monrovia, California, conducted a study that lasted more than a decade and included more than 900 cats. Two groups of cats were fed identical diets of meat, milk and vegetables, but the food for one group was cooked and the food for the other group was raw. The cats of the raw group had good health, as did their offspring. The cats of the cooked food group, however, all had health breakdowns, including hair loss, brittle bones, underactive thyroid, liver disorders, brain thickening, skin lesions, respiratory infections, intestinal parasites, vision problems and spinal cord degeneration.
The females of the group fed cooked food were aggressive and irritable, while the males were docile and showed little interest in the females. This group of cats did not survive beyond the third generation. Among the first generation, the miscarriage rate was about 25 percent, and among the second generation it was about 70 percent. By the third generation, the cats were sterile and many had congenital deformities. Kittens in the cooked food group weighed an average of 19 kilograms less than kittens whose mothers ate raw foods.
A study published in 1992 in the Journal of Nutrition detailed the work of researchers at the University of Kuopio in Finland, who studied the effects of a raw, vegan diet on fecal activity. Eighteen participants were divided randomly into a test group and a control group. The test group ate a raw, vegan diet for one month and a conventional diet for a second month, while the control group ate a conventional diet for both months. The researchers measured levels of fecal enzymes and the toxins phenol and p-cresol in the participants’ blood serum.
The test group showed declines in the measured substances while on the raw, vegan diet, but then their fecal enzyme levels returned to normal within two weeks of resuming the conventional diet, and their phenol and p-cresol concentrations returned to normal within one month. The control group, on the conventional diet throughout, exhibited no changes in these levels. These results suggest that following a raw, vegan diet causes a decrease in bacterial enzymes and certain toxins that have been shown to contribute to colon cancer risk.
Another study at the University of Kuopio, published in 2000 in the Scandinavian Journal of Rheumatology, detailed the work of researchers who investigated the effects of nutrition on 33 female patients (average age 51) suffering from fibromyalgia. For three months, 18 of the women ate a completely raw diet and the rest ate a vegan diet. At the end of the study, the adherents to the raw foods diet reported less pain, better sleep and less morning stiffness, whereas the patients on the vegan diet complained of more pain.
Many people are plagued with digestive complaints and have had trouble in the past eating raw foods. Some have been told they lack digestive ability and must eat only cooked foods. Au contraire! Enzymes are what you need to heal digestion problems, and you’re certainly not going to find them in cooked food.
Raw foods work as intestinal brooms, and eating them causes a cleansing reaction; although this may cause gas and/or intestinal discomfort in some people, it is usually only a short-term initial problem. If you find that certain raw foods are difficult to digest, avoid them at first, but don’t hesitate to try them in small amounts later, after you’ve been raw for a couple of months. As your digestion becomes stronger from the intake of enzymes, your food repertoire can increase.
You also can season your food with any of the many herbs and spices that facilitate digestion, including basil, rosemary, thyme, fennel, ginger and cinnamon.
Many people think that a raw foods diet will leave them feeling constantly hungry. Perhaps that’s because they equate it with eating only small amounts of raw fruits and vegetables in their plainest form. In truth, a raw diet is far from the classic stereotype of “rabbit food.” It offers a tremendous variety of ingredients, flavors and preparation methods. Because raw foods are packed with nutrients and fiber, they are satisfying to both the palate and the stomach. And, generally speaking, you can eat as much raw food as you like without worrying about weight gain.
For many years, I resisted the raw foods path in the belief that eating raw food would make me unable to tolerate the cold Colorado winters. Now that I eat raw, I am amazed that it took me so long to overcome this prejudice. It’s true that newcomers to a raw foods diet may feel cold more easily; one reason for this is that raw foods are less dense in calories, and calories produce heat as food is metabolized by the body. After a few months, however, eating raw foods will cause your arteries and other blood vessels to become less congested, circulation will improve and you will feel comfortable in either cold or warm weather.
Rather than eating warm foods when the weather is cold, eat warming foods. Try filling your diet with warming, concentrated, dark-orange vegetables, such as pumpkins, sweet potatoes, winter squash and carrots. Eat more warming roots, such as burdock, onions, rutabagas and turnips, and warming greens, such as arugula, mustard greens and watercress. Consuming more nuts, nut butters and dried fruit will help you develop better resistance to the cold. Getting adequate fats by consuming olive oil, avocados, durians, nuts and seeds helps treat the dryness of skin and scalp that is so prevalent when heat is used in homes during the winter. Use more of the warming culinary herbs to spice up your food and improve circulation. Good choices include black sesame seeds, cayenne, garlic, horseradish, jalapeño, ginger and cardamom.
If you don’t want to eat cold food, you can warm your raw meals up to 114 degrees without destroying any of the en- zymes. You also can leave food out at room temperature, serve it on prewarmed plates or place it in a glass jar with a secure lid and submerge the jar in some hot water to warm it up. Many raw foodists living in cold climates drink hot herbal teas in cold weather — just heat the water without boiling it.
People may ask, “Aren’t you cold eating only raw food in the winter?” A logical reply might be, “Aren’t you hot eating cooked foods in the summer?”
Many people think that being raw will be difficult. It’s not. It really does save time, money and your health, and it’s so very worth any trouble it might be.
Because it can be a shock to the body to stop eating familiar fare abruptly, a gradual transition works best for some people. Begin by including a raw dish with each meal. Then, make one meal each day completely raw. Start having raw dishes for main entrees and have cooked foods as side dishes. Eliminate first those heavier, unhealthful foods you know you shouldn’t be eating.
Some people take as long as a year to become totally raw. The hardest withdrawal period is at about two months. Salt cravings may indicate a need for more minerals: instead of potato chips, eat seaweeds. If you have a craving for sweet foods, eat celery to diminish your cravings. If you strongly crave fats, eat avocados and nuts, and balance them with lots of greens, celery and cucumbers. The one food you think you just can’t give up — whether potato chips, coffee, chocolate or any other — is very likely your greatest health impediment.
It may take up to three or four months on a raw foods diet before you are able to judge how it is working for you. Do your best to be at least 80 percent raw — and for ultimate health and healing, do it 100 percent.
Adapted from Rawsome! Maximizing Health, Energy, and Culinary Delight with the Raw Foods Diet by Brigitte Mars. Published by Basic Health Publications, Inc., Laguna Beach, California. Reprinted with permission.
Rawsome! Maximizing Health, Energy, and Culinary Delight with the Raw Foods Diet by Brigitte Mars (see “Bookshelf,” Page 58 )
Living Cuisine: The Art and Spirit of Raw Foods by Renée Loux Underkoffler (Avery, 2003)
The Complete Book of Raw Food: Healthy, Delicious Vegetarian Cuisine Made with Living Foods by Lori Baird (Hatherleigh, 2005)
The Raw Food Primer by Suzanne Alexander Ferrara (Council Oak Books, 2003)
Sproutman’s Kitchen Garden Cookbook: Sprout Breads, Cookies, Soups, Salads & 250 Other Low Fat, Dairy-Free, Vegetarian Recipes by Steve Meyerowitz (Sproutman Publications, 1999)
Sit in on dozens of practical workshops from the leading authorities on natural health, organic gardening, real food and more!LEARN MORE